HS2 hit the buffers again this week as it was announced that Sir Terry Morgan, the scheme’s chairman, had resigned following days of reports that he was about to be sacked.
This came after bosses at the beleaguered rail project confirmed that construction is to be put back to June next year, while costs continue to escalate to eye-watering levels.
Contracts for the first phase between London and Birmingham have overrun by more than £1bn – and this before ground has been broken. It has already cost the British taxpayer £4.1bn and businesses and home owners along the route have not yet been compensated, despite many having lost their livelihoods and homes.
HS2 is currently undertaking its latest consultations on the Birmingham to Leeds stage of the project. The deadline is December 21 and in our south Leeds village, Woodlesford, we are collating evidence about how it will devastate businesses, destroy homes, wipe out communities and cause irreparable damage to the environment.
During the eight-year construction period, an extra 600 vehicles will be put on a series of minor side roads which currently serve two primary schools, two secondary schools and act as a rat run between the M62 and the M1.
We’re not Nimbys, but HS2 is a vanity project which will already be obsolete when it comes on stream in 2033. To put it in context, three weeks ago the Kingdom of Morocco put its high speed rail system into service 15 years ahead of the UK!
At the same time villagers suffer daily abuse from the Northern franchise which operates out of Woodlesford. Many have long since abandoned the train in favour of their cars.
Like fellow commuters around Yorkshire, they are left freezing on the county’s platforms waiting for often late or cancelled trains and the indignity of travelling on something that would not look out of place on the film set of a 1950s slapstick comedy.
But no one is laughing, particularly not after rail fare increases of 3.1 per cent were announced from January 2. This just after it was revealed that only two of the 98 new trains due to hit the Northern rail network are fit for purpose because the rest have a braking fault.
Rail services in the north of England are woefully inadequate for the ambitions of any of the major cities either side of the Pennines. Persistent under-investment has left the system at breaking point.
The answer from management is to block commuters who have the audacity to go public with their complaints and adopt an ostrich approach to the scale of the problem. In May, I complained to one Northern rail executive at Leeds station and was told I could have jam tomorrow thanks to the investment that was being put in during the summer.
Well, like many other commuters in the rush hour, I am still waiting. This has to stop – and it has to stop now.
In principle, I have no problem with massive investment in a national rail network that will add capacity and speed up links between the UK’s major cities. The reality is that it is too little too late.
If the UK post-Brexit is to have any chance of competing for international trade and maintain current standards of living for citizens, then money has to be spent on local and regional rail networks.
Network Rail is currently undertaking what it calls ‘Major Railway Upgrades’ with the trans-Pennine route dubbed one of its key projects. When it is finished in 2021, there will be capacity across the whole of the North for 40,000 more passengers. It’s not enough.
With spend per head of population falling in the North while it escalates in London and the South East, there has to be an immediate switch of emphasis by regional and national politicians.
With HS2 running so seriously over budget and behind schedule, the Government needs to be honest now and admit it will never go north of Birmingham in the foreseeable future. Once that vanity project stops, the money can be spent on services in the North.
Cash has to be spent on speeding up services between the major Northern cities and towns with more reliable, regular and affordable routes.
In parallel with investment in rail tracks, timetables and stations, serious money has to be spent on new rolling stock. For too long we’ve had a make-do-and-mend approach. We need new, state of the art trains which are spacious, well-lit and comfortable, to make rail travel the default.
Once HS2 is in the sidings and money is spent on regional services, the economy will seriously take off.
Carmel Harrison is Lib Dem councillor for Rothwell and public transport campaigner.